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Middletown OKs grant, airport parking for major balloon event

The Ohio Challenge will receive a grant and be permitted to have parking inside the perimeter at Middletown Regional Airport for the 2019 event.

Middletown City Council met with officials from the annual Ohio Challenge hot air balloon competition Tuesday to discuss the various issues facing the event.

Since August, city and event officials have met three times to discuss issues that emerged concerning future parking inside the airport fence as well as addressing the loss of a major sponsor after a dispute with city and airport officials.

City Manager Doug Adkins said the Ohio Challenge organization requested $25,000 to help cover a portion of the lost sponsorship that was provided by Selection.com and to continue parking inside the airport perimeter.

MORE: Balloon festival organizers, city talk through parking issues

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Adkins told council that there were funds available to cover the grant request. He said it would be up to council to decide to award the funding. In comparison, the city spent nearly $36,000 on the July 3rd event in Smith Park in 2018.

Councilman Joe Mulligan was supportive of the grant request, adding that “a good number of people come to the event each year.”

“It’s a good investment and it provides a lot of identity to the city,” said Mayor Larry Mulligan.

Councilman Steve Bohannon asked what if other organizations make similar requests for their events. Mayor Mulligan said only if they bring in the numbers of visitors that the Ohio Challenge brings.

MORE: Company withdraws Ohio Challenge sponsorship due to airport dispute

Adkins brought up the parking and transportation issue. He said the Ohio Challenge has been parking about 1,400 cars inside the airport perimeter for the past 10 years. However, new airport manager Dan Dickten expressed concerns about complying with Federal Aviation Administration regulations and guidance on airport closings and the city is planning to build its new Education Hangar in that space.

Adkins said Dickten has come up with a plan to keep half of the taxiway open with a different configuration but this would be for 2019 only and a new plan would have to be developed for 2020 and beyond for parking.

David Pearce, an Ohio Challenge organizer and treasurer, and Sean Askren, a hot air balloon pilot and the event’s “air boss” told council that the FAA’s Detroit office has no objections or regulations to using the airport property for event parking. Askren said this is done at other events such as in Battle Creek, Mich., and Rome, Ga. He also said in the past 16 years, there has never been any issues.

Pearce said the airport parking was critical and 65 percent of visitors come from outside of Middletown.

“We need to make parking easy, simple and safe for a good customer experience,” he said.

Council agreed on the parking request for the short-term but a long-term plan will need to be developed.

MORE: Work session guides future development, operations at Middletown airport

The 2017 event had a direct economic impact of $2 million to $2.5 million and attracted an average of 50,000 to 55,000 people, with about 50 percent coming from Butler and Warren counties, according to organizers.

The 2018 event was the first time the event was considered a wash-out due to heavy rains, with a 90 percent drop in attendance from the 2017 event.

MORE: Middletown, Cincinnati State exploring aviation training partnership

After the meeting, Pearce called the decision “a win/win for the community, the city and the event….. This way we’ll be able to deliver a high quality event in 2019.”

“I am very appreciative that city council, staff and the airport manager has made the decision to support the Ohio Challenge,” Pearce said. “They have taken the time to understand our needs and have worked collaboratively to ensure the event will be very successful. We are excited to move forward with planning the event which will take place July 19-20.”

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